Monday, July 6, 2009

Debi: Local Produce

Last summer, our family (well, ok, since I do all the grocery shopping, it was mostly me) decided to limit our produce purchases to local produce during the natural growing season in the midwest. I start this adventure for us in June, when we start receiving weekly boxes of produce from our CSA, Angelic Organics, and I end it after we've used up most of the produce from the last box, usually sometime in November. It's a short chunk of the year, relatively speaking, and we don't have the setup Stori does to preserve food during the winter, but I feel good about doing at least what we do.

Our commitment is very simple: if we can get local produce, we don't buy produce from, say, California. That means summer is a time without bananas and mangoes, and that asparagus, which grows in the spring, doesn't grace our grill in August. Our sources are abundant: the CSA box arrives on Wednesday, with vegetables only, usually enough to last the week and some items into the next; there is a small farmers' market on Wednesday evenings, two blocks from our house, where we buy fruit; and there is a HUGE farmers' market on Saturday mornings in downtown Evanston, another place to buy fruit and things like honey, preserves, fresh bread, flowers, etc. Most of the time, we don't need to buy any produce in between.

Until, of course, the berry monsters invade the house and eat up all the berries in one day.

My daughters are fruit FREAKS. They can eat more fruit than anything else, will absolutely gorge themselves on it. I've seen them polish off half a canteloup in one sitting. Berries are no exception, but I was sure that four pints would get us through the week. No such luck. On Wednesday, we bought a pint of blueberries and a pint of cherries. The blueberries were gone by mid-morning on Thursday. On Saturday, we bought a pint of blueberries and a pint of raspberries. The raspberries were gone by nightfall and the blueberries were gone by mid-day on Sunday. We currently have six cherries in a sad bowl in the fridge. Today's harvest from our one raspberry bush and four little strawberry plants can be seen in the picture to the right.

No farmers' markets until Wednesday.

In dismay, I ran into the local Dominicks grocery store (a Safeway chain here in the Chicago area), hoping they might have berries from Michigan (which is where our local farmers' markets get their berries anyway -- it's only a couple of hours away). I was thrilled to see a huge sign that said "LOCALLY GROWN!" In fact, that sign was on half a dozen large displays of produce. However, when I grabbed for the beautiful carton of strawberries, I recognized the Driscoll's Farm label. Driscoll's is a California company.

I urgently reached for another product under the "LOCALLY GROWN!!!" signage. Blueberries -- also grown in California. Same with watermelon, raspberries, blackberries, and cherries. I found a store employee and asked him about it, and he pointed to a sign with a map of the country, explaining to me that the "LOCALLY GEOWN!!!" signs were only meant to alert customers to the fact that the produce department did sell some items that were locally grown. It was not meant to indicate that the items underneath the sign were locally grown. This week, according to the map, the locally grown products were the blueberries and the scallions.

Except, of course, I noticed that the blueberries were from California. I pointed this out to the employee, and he offered to get his manager. I agreed. The manager came out and explained to me that the corporate headquarters of Safeway requires him to put the "LOCALLY GROWN!!!" signs up, and that the real test of whether something is actually locally grown is to look for the white and green signs above the produce that say, in small letters, "local." He pointed this out on the sign above the scallions. I looked, and it did indeed say "local," except right below it, it also said, "a product of Mexico."

I said, "Define local, please."

The manager stammered, apologized, said it was mislabeled, and that he agreed that the signs were perhaps misleading. He suggested I fill out a comment card that could be sent to corporate HQ in California.

I thought I'd do him one better. Does anyone else out there shop at Safeway stores that label their produce this way? Does anyone else find this demeaning, misleading, annoying, and just plain wrong? I understand that, in economies of scale, produce currently has to be shipped around the country. I just don't want to shop that way when I have an alternative, and being misled by the store about this makes me wonder if I am being misled about other things. Is the "ORGANIC" produce really organic? Is the "LOWFAT" muffin really lowfat? Is the "LETTUCE" really lettuce?

Please visit your local Safeway store and check your produce (unless you live in California, in which case everything is probably local -- though if you see Michigan blueberries, don't tell me; I might scream). If it says "LOCAL" but it isn't -- talk to the manager. Ask about it. Let it become an issue. Let other people overhear you. Hey, Safeway, don't sell local produce; that's your right -- but don't lie about it to your customers. That's your wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment